Kiri is a digital journalist for bayofplentytimes.co.nz.

More Bay of Plenty firefighters seeking professional help

Katikati firefighter Brendan Gibbs often deals with traumatic incidents and helps his peers cope with stress and more Bay firefighters seek professional help. Photo/George Novak
Katikati firefighter Brendan Gibbs often deals with traumatic incidents and helps his peers cope with stress and more Bay firefighters seek professional help. Photo/George Novak

More Bay of Plenty firefighters are seeking professional support to help them deal with trauma and major events in their work and personal life.

Figures released to the Bay of Plenty Times under the Official Information Act show firefighters in the Bay's coastal area, which runs from Waihi to Opotiki, were referred to a counsellor or psychologist 11 times last year.

This compared to five referrals in 2014 and none in 2013.

Of last year's referrals, seven were for personal reasons and four were workplace-related. In 2014, three were personal while two were workplace related. No leave was taken for any of the counselling.

It's very, very hard as a firefighter. Often the adrenaline keeps you going so you do what you have to do but there's always that lingering thought 'are they going to make it?
Firefighter Brendan Gibbs

Katikati volunteer firefighter Brendan Gibbs said firefighters had started responding to a lot more to medical events such as heart attacks in the past year as part of an agreement to help St John ambulance staff who were sometimes unable to respond quickly.

He said that could be part of the reason for the increased need for support.

Mr Gibbs said firefighters regularly attended disturbing and horrific emergencies and often, especially in smaller communities such as Katikati, firefighters knew the person involved.

Mr Gibbs attended the crash at Wharawhara Rd on State Highway 2 earlier this month and spent more than an hour freeing Suzanne Langlois, 45, from the wreckage of her car.

Ms Langlois later died in hospital.

"It's very, very hard as a firefighter. Often the adrenaline keeps you going so you do what you have to do but there's always that lingering thought 'are they going to make it?'," Mr Gibbs said.

Mr Gibbs is part of a Tauranga-led critical-incident stress management team, which recognises traumatic call outs and helps firefighters work through and deal with high-stress cases.

"A definite challenge the fire service has been having is people thinking you've been hardened after you've been to one or two [traumatic call outs], but we've dealt with people suffering from post traumatic stress from some cases,'' Mr Gibbs said.

In the past you turned up to a motor vehicle accident ... you cut them out and they go to hospital. But medical emergencies ... you are often having to deal with family who are there and often upset.
Te Puke fire chief Glenn Williams

"You might go to something relatively simple, and sometimes it can trigger you off. All of a sudden you are feeling very, very bad. Even some of the hard-line guys who have been in the job 20 odd years can be triggered off.

"If you don't catch it early, it can cause problems - home relationships can suffer, how you treat your kids can suffer because you're not sleeping, etc."

Mr Gibbs, who is also vicar at the St. Peter's Anglican Church, said he visited a psychologist at least once a year 'just to do a check up'.

"Self care is important in my job as well."

United Fire Brigade Association director and Te Puke fire chief Glenn Williams said the increase of medical jobs appeared to be putting extra strain on firefighters. Mr Williams said he was aware of cases of people being affected by some medical call outs, particularly cardiac arrests.

''It's a different environment to what firefighters have been used to. In the past you turned up to a motor vehicle accident and it might be nasty but you cut them out and they go to hospital. But medical emergencies, like cardiac arrests, not only are you trying CPR but you are often having to deal with family who are there and often upset.''

Mr Williams said brigades were conscientious about the impact a serious crash could have on firefighters, but many would need to consider the medical call outs also.

Fire Service region manager Ron Devlin said firefighters needing help were dealt with on a case by case basis with a range of options offered.

Mr Devlin listed the options offered to firefighters including a New Zealand Fire Service peer supporter, safety and well being coordinator and professional support including clinical psychologists and other health professionals.

The fire service also offered advice for families of firefighters involved in critical incidents.

Tips that can help after trauma


- Regular exercise and time to rest and relax
- Talk with family, friends or colleagues
- Try to maintain normal activities such as sports groups, clubs, church, etc.
- Eat healthy, regular meals and aim to sleep at normal times
- Be patient with family and friends who want to help
Source - New Zealand Fire Service

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